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Full text of "Studies in Superstition: Horace. In Three Parts—Part I"

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No 139 



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STUDIES IN SUPERSTITION : 

HORACE 

In Three Parts — Part I 
The superstitions mentioned in Horace 
were first catalogued by Mr G L Apperson 
in the Folk Lore Journal of the English Folk 
Lore Society, vol I. However, when in the 
course of my researches in this field I came 
to read the Latin Lyric, I soon found it neces- 
sary to make a new collection. For Apperson 
had attacked the problem from the standpoint 
of the folklorist and not from that of the 
mythologis*. The following collection, there- 
fore, contains a number of items not given by 
my predecessor, and on the other hand omits 
a considerable number of points mentioned 
there, especially those belonging to the field 
of religion proper, or to that of popular games 
and medicine. 

In approaching an author of the standing of 
Horace the task of critical selection, always 
difficult, becomes doubly so on account of the 
mental attitude of the man. In dealing with 
authors like Aeschylus, Sophocles, even Euri- 
pides, one feels that one is confronted by an 
earnestness of purpose, a sincerity of religious 
feeling, which make every little notice gleaned 
from their works appear a valuable gem. 
The same holds good of the intense fervor of 
Pindar. Even Theocritus, though his time 
and age would seem to bear a rather close re- 



semblance to those of the Roman poet, occu- 
pies a different place. For, although a cour- 
tier poet, he yet addresses himself to a national 
audience. But Horace lived not only at the 
court of the ruler of the world, at least he 
seems to be a different person at different 
times. It appears difficult, at first, to recon- 
cile the poet of the Roman Odes in the third 
book of the Carmina, with their advocacy of 
a return to the severe " disciplina maiorum ", 
with the man who could utter such sentiments 
as " carpe diem " or advocate the mere sensu- 
al enjoyment of the hour as the aim to be 
striven after. And yet the reader of the 
whole- work of Horace cannot but feel that 
he is dealing with a whole man of firm moral 
and ethical principles. It behooves us there- 
fore, before giving our catalog, to justify 
our selection by a short resume of the attitude 
of the poet to the question of religion. 

The reader will at once think of the famous 
Ode of the Recantation (I, 34) "Parens deo- 
rum cultor et infrequens, Insanientis dum sa- 
pientiae Consultus erro, nunc retrorsum Vela 
dare atque iterare cursus Cogor relictos". 
Here Horace bids farewell to the wisdom of 
Epicure, and seems to vow a return to the 
religion of the forefathers. A thunderbolt 
from the clear sky, so he says, has given him 
warning that the gods humble the mighty and 
exalt the humble. But was he quite serious 
and sincere? " Hinc apicem rapax Fortuna 
cum stridore acuto Sustulit, hie posuisse gau- 
det"; so he continues, with a reference to 
Fate which reminds one much more of the 
sombre attitude of a Tacitus. Of course, the 
advocate of the poet can quote more than one 
passage, which may be construed as bearing 
out this frame of mind. But I am convinced 
that a careful weighing in the balance will 
show that in all of these the opinions uttered 
are spoken much more in deference to the 
outspoken policy of Caesar Augustus than 
from the poet's own heart. Fortunately, Hor- 
ace himself has allowed us more than one 
glance into his own convictions. In the third 
Satire of the second Book, 288 ff he tells us 



THE LATIN LEAFLET 



a story of a mother, who, in order to cure her 
son of the fever, would be willing to imperil 
his health by an immersion in the ice cold 
water of the Tiber in accordance with some, 
presumably Jewish rite. " Quone malo men- 
tem concussa? Timore deorum ". In defer- 
ence to truth it must be said that the ex- 
pression " timore deorum " seems to be a 
translation of the Greek Deisidaimonia. And 
in the same poem (79) he classes the " tristis 
superstitio " with the " mentis morbi ". The 
same attitude, with a clear and distinct refer- 
ence to the Epicurean philosophy, has found 
its expression in the fifth satire of the first 
book, where he ridicules the alleged miracle of 
Gnatia with these words : I have learned that 
the gods lead a life free from care. If Nature 
does anything miraculous, it does not mean 
that the gods, in their displeasure, cause this 
phenomenon ". If it can be urged against 
these conclusions that the poems mentioned 
were written 12 and 7 years before the recan- 
tation, the same cannot be said of Epist II, 
2 207 ff. And yet here the poet assumes 
clearly the role of the free thinker. For 
these are his words : " Is your heart free of 
fear of, and resentment at, death? Do you 
laugh at dreams, magical terrors, miracles, 
witches, the spectres of night, and the portents 
of the Thessalians?" The man who could 
pen these words in the midst of a civilisation 
infested by all the superstitions of the East 
cannot have been deeply imbued with respect 
for the primitive religion of his forefathers, 
a religion which certainly was full of portents 
and their expiation. Rather, we may imagine 
him as of the same mental attitude as Cicero, 
viz, while himself absolutely free from all be- 
liefs except perhaps a philosophical Deism, 
yet favoring the maintenance of the strict 
observance of the traditional forms of wor- 
ship on account of its restraining influence 
upon the unbridled instincts of the populace. 
The question naturally arises: What value 
can there be in the items of superstition glean- 
ed from the works of such a man? In the 
first instance, we may well believe in the actu- 
al existence, in his time, of those superstitions 
which he ridicules in his Satires. There is 
one great difference between the satire of 
Horace and that of Juvenal or Persius. 
The element of exaggeration is conspicuously 
absent. Not only was his age not yet infected 
with the insane desire to say something new, 
which characterizes the beginning of the sec- 
ond century of our era as it is the earmark 
of every age of the Epigone, but the very 



character of the poet was averse to overstate- 
ments. The aurea medio critas was for him 
much more than a mere form of speech; it 
was deeply ingrained, both by nature and by 
education, in his innermost heart. And. so 
we may accept without reserve as actually ex- 
isting every superstition which is mentioned 
in the Sermones. 

As for the Odes, his more serious poems 
without doubt were written with the honest 
endeavor to support the moral restoration 
which the Augustan Court — with scant suc- 
cess — tried to bring about. 

It is somewhat different with such of his 
poems as are written in a lighter vein. These 
present at once the very important question 
as to how far they may be taken to represent 
Roman feelings, or whether they are not 
rather a close imitation of Greek originals, in- 
cluding the local color. The very elusive 
character of all superstitions, cropping up as 
they do alike in every land, presents one of 
the most delicate problems of research in the 
field of religious history. Time and again 
have even the greatest scholars in the field of 
folklore been misled, and have given as 
popular beliefs matters which are purely a 
remnant of learned tradition. Even Felix 
Liebrecht in his priceless Volkskunde once re- 
ported as an actual Norwegian superstition 
what is palpably simply a translation of a no- 
tice found in Pliny's Historia Naturalis. No- 
bod doubts that Vergil's eighth eclogue does 
not give a picture of an occurrence in Rome, 
or even in Italy. Theocritus himself cannot 
have pictured in his second Idyl an -actual 
happening at Alexandria or Syracuse. And 
yet, how wary we ought to tread on this 
ground was conclusively proven by" the publi- 
cation and the detailed study of the " Magical 
Papyri " during the last decade of the past 
century. I myself have shown (Rhein Mu- 
seum XLIX) that nearly every feature of 
the Canidia Poems of Horace finds its close 
parallel in these sorcerers' handbooks of a 
much later period. The discussion of these 
problems jnust be reserved to the introduction 
into a History of Ancient Superstition, which 
after all may yet be written within our gener- 
ation. My immediate purpose in this publi- 
cation, as in my preceding studies, is rather to 
pave the way for such a work, and to collect 
the material for it. Some points, however, 
may fitly be discussed, as opportunity offers, 
in connection with the catalog of supersti- 
tions annexed to this paper. 

Ernst Riess